Russia’s War Game in Ukraine

President Putin has come too far to back down, but what will he play for?

Headed for war? Russian military movements indicate that Putin may be planning an imminent invasion of Ukraine. Image Credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

As things stand now, the intensifying political situation in and around Ukraine has reached a point where open war seems imminent and unavoidable. Russia certainly has done all it can to endorse this perception. Whether a military incursion or other possible scenarios unfold, President Vladimir Putin may have already achieved an important goal: Russia has already damaged—possibly irreparably—Ukraine’s ambition to integrate more closely with Western political, economic and security structures.

On January 24, the U.S. State Department ordered families of its diplomatic personnel in Ukraine to be evacuated from the country. The U.K. also announced a reduction of its diplomatic missions by half. But these are not the only countries to reduce their diplomatic and consular personnel: According to The New York Times, Russia also withdrew about 50 people from Kyiv, possibly signaling an end to diplomacy and a corresponding increase in hostilities. So, is war actually coming? And if so, what would it look like?

Unusual Moves

NATO’s eyes and ears have focused keenly on the likely theater of operations in the past few weeks. Since the beginning of January, we observed intense NATO reconnaissance missions over Ukraine, eastern Poland and the Baltic States. On January 18, a highly valuable U.S. Air Force E-8C Joint STARS was monitoring Russian troop concentrations in the Donbas region. The aircraft’s radar can detect and track ground equipment, such as tanks, infantry carriers and artillery pieces. On January 21, an Air Force RC-135W electronics reconnaissance aircraft was flying over northern Ukraine along the Belarusian border and beyond, toward Kharkiv. On January 23, the new U.S. Army Artemis reconnaissance plane flew over eastern Poland, all along the border. On January 24, the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft made several passes at 45,000 feet along the Russian border in northern and eastern Ukraine.

Image Credit: Steschke/Wikimedia Commons

Such reconnaissance sorties are being made on an almost daily basis, not only by U.S. assets but also by those of the U.K. and sometimes other NATO countries. This abnormal activity indicates a very unusual situation.

Valuable Russian assets are making unusual moves as well. Three Ropucha-class amphibious warfare ships—Korolev, Minsk and Kaliningrad—left the Baltic and crossed the Danish straits on January 17, headed west. These were joined by the Ropucha-class amphibious warfare ships Olenegorskiy Gornyak and Georgiy Pobedonosets, as well as the slightly larger Ivan Gren-class landing ship Pyotr Morgunov from the Northern Fleet. All six ships of the flotilla seemed to be fully loaded, as they sat deeply in the water.

The ships have subsequently crossed the English Channel and, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense cited by the Interfax Agency, are headed toward the Mediterranean. Also, a few ships of Russia’s Pacific Fleet (including a missile cruiser and a frigate), which have just completed Russia-China-Iran naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, are also reportedly headed to the Mediterranean to conduct a combined, inter-fleet exercise. It is very likely that the whole group of ships, after meeting somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, will head to the Black Sea.

The movement of the amphibious warfare ships and their complement has great portent. The ships might be carrying advanced parties of the Baltic and Northern Fleets’ Marine Brigades. Such forces would be useful for landings on Ukraine’s southern coast to help establish a land bridge with Russia. Crimea connects to the mainland at the slender Isthmus of Perekop, which could easily be blocked by Ukrainian defenders. The ships would definitely be needed to conduct any significant amphibious operation in the Mykolaiv or Odessa areas to capture the remaining Ukrainian sea coast.

The Russian War

In April 2021, we highlighted how and why Russia under Putin remains a military threat to Western Europe. Ukraine is the current epicenter of that threat and represents a significant investment in Russian arms, money and political prestige.

The Russian forces deployed around Ukraine are not strong enough to occupy the whole country. Even the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense mostly expects a limited attack to evolve out of the current situation. However, limited does not mean irrelevant.

Ukrainians mostly express concerns regarding Kharkiv, which is quite close to the Russian border. Kharkiv is the second-largest Ukrainian city with well-developed industry; it hosts one of the world’s largest tank production factories. The Russian 20th Guards Army, deployed in the Belgorod area, is close at hand and seems ready to jump to capture the city.

The 1st Guards Tank Army, another large front-line force, is deployed close to the Belarus border. Backed by the 41st Army in the Yelnya area, it might rush to Kyiv itself. Capturing the capital might disrupt any organized resistance of Ukrainian forces. It would not be easy, however, since the Russians would have to cross the wide Dnieper to take the most important part of the city on the western bank. This is a major challenge. The only place where this river can be crossed is either in Kyiv itself or 50 km farther south, between Kaniv and Cherkasy.

There are also two other regions with big troop concentrations: The Russian 8th Guards Army is deployed in the area of Rostov, and nobody knows what forces have already been inserted into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (collectively known as Donbas), which have been detached from Ukraine since 2014. In the current situation, the provinces could form the staging areas for a Russian offensive against Dnipro and farther to Poltava, where they could link up with forces driving on Kharkiv. Such a pincer attack would trap many Ukrainian defenders between the two prongs of Russian forces, significantly weakening Ukrainian defensive capabilities.

Another possible axis of attack from Donbas might go toward Mariupol and then to Crimea to establish a firm land connection with the Russian enclave there.

Implementation of this most ambitious plan would result in Russia’s occupying all of eastern Ukraine, up to the Dnieper River. The river would form a natural significant obstacle and an easily defensible line of demarcation between the eastern, industrial and resource-rich Ukraine and the western agricultural Ukraine. If the Russians also endeavor to seize the major port city of Odessa, its amphibious warfare capability will come in handy.

There is a solid reason for Russia to think that this plan, ambitious as it is, is achievable. The eastern Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking population is generally anti-Western and pro-Russian, as opposed to the western Ukraine population with its solid majority of native language speakers and pro-Western disposition. If this is Russia’s plan, and if it is implemented successfully, the likely result is a partition of Ukraine.

Limited Stakes

While the above scenario is probably the very best the Russians might expect from rolling the dice for war, Putin could conceivably play for lesser stakes at relatively lower risk. The U.K. recently accused Russia of plotting a coup in Ukraine to install a pro-Russian government. Such a coup would require Russia to insert special forces into Kyiv to help its allies remove the current government and take power. Russia might precede this action with a limited incursion to take Kharkiv, with perhaps a demonstration by amphibious forces in the Black Sea to distract from the coup effort.

Can we understand President Biden’s comments about a “minor incursion” in the context of the coup scenario? Does Biden know much more than we all do? Certainly he does, and certainly a Russian-backed coup might well achieve Putin’s aims without the prospect of a divided Ukraine requiring an extended occupation—and a forceful Western response.

Ultimately, what are Russian interests in Ukraine? Above all, Russia does not want Ukraine to join either NATO or the European Union. Ukraine must remain neutral at best, while the ideal situation is for it to become a Belarus-like ally on Russia’s southwest flank. Russia’s information warfare activity preceding this crisis is aimed at promoting close regional cooperation, pointing out how much Ukraine has lost with her ill-fated flirtation with the West.

That is Putin’s dream, and he’s a smart guy, whatever else one might say about him. Installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv and establishing some Russian garrisons across the country with relatively little fighting is the best outcome Russia can probably achieve without a wider war and endless economic sanctions. If all these objectives are met with no costly and unsightly prolonged combat, the EU and NATO will be divided in offering an adequate response, especially with chilly Germans eagerly awaiting Russian natural gas deliveries.

One thing is certain: Putin probably will not back down. He has crossed a certain Rubicon and he must do something—anything but get his sandals wet by stepping backwards.

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